“Rock and Roll Suicide” may not be the absolute best ever episode of the short-lived Roderick Taylor series, Otherworld (1985), but it sure as hell is the most fun.
In this amusing and satirical tale, the Sterlings have taken up residence in Centrex, a large province with a population of approximately five million. Centrex is a buttoned down, boring town, at least until Trace (Tony O’Dell) and Gina (Jonna Lee) introduce the province’s teenage inhabitants to rock-and-roll music. So yes, this is, essentially, Footloose (1984) only done as a cult-tv, science-fiction story.
The conservative Church of Artificial Intelligence almost immediately protests the “sinful” music, and its leader, Baxter Dromo (Michael Ensign) sets out to destroy Trace and Gina, going so far as to burn their albums. Even this opposition from the establishment, however, cannot prevent Trace and Gina from becoming a pop culture sensation in Centrex, one replete with its own merchandising blitz.
Hal (Sam Groom) worries that his kids are drawing too much attention to themselves, but when the Church crosses the line from censorship to violence, he realizes the battle being waged here is not about music, but “free speech.” Unfortunately, the Praetor sends Commander Kroll (Jonathan Banks) to Centrex, thus ending the promising rock careers of the Sterling kids once and for all. With the help of Trace and Gina’s agent, Billy Sunshine (Michael Callan), the Sterlings escape Centrex.
“Rock and Roll Suicide” is such a terrific episode of Otherworld (and sci-fi tv, to boot), because in just barely forty-five minutes it tells the whole, glorious, multi-decade story of rock-and-roll in America. That story begins with relatively innocuous music, by today’s standards. We see this epoch of history embodied in Gina and Trace’s performances of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” But before the long, as the episode progresses, the costumes, haircuts and music all grow more flamboyant and edgy, drifting into the then-contemporary era of 80s punk, pop and hair metal.
All the while, of course, the “establishment,” embodied by the Church of Artificial Intelligence fears the growing rock movement. The form seems to encourage youngsters to “express themselves,” for one thing. And in one especially amusing scene, the leader of the church, Dromo, listens to a Trace and Gina song backwards, and becomes he’s convinced he’s hearing subliminal, evil messages. In particular, he hears the word “inter-dimensional,” he thinks.
Soon, the Church goes from protesting something it doesn’t like to squelching free speech, and this impulse too has been part of rock history. “You’ve defied the order of things,” says Dromo, “You have disrupted the spiritual equilibrium of this whole province.”
Indeed, but only in his own tortured mind…
“Rock and Roll Suicide” also showcases, amusingly, the marketing blitzkrieg that can surround a musical phenomenon. Here, we see Trace and Gina dolls (that look surprisingly authentic in terms of 1980s toys), but if you lived through the 1970s as a kid, you remember Sonny and Cher dolls, Donnie and Marie dolls, and KISS dolls too. In a consumer culture, a band ultimately becomes a commodity, as we see here.
Another interesting subplot in this episode by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor involves Trace’s new girlfriend. He realizes all too quickly that she’s only into him for the fame and the money, not because she likes him. So this episode meditates on the pitfalls of fame as well as the “guitar hero” aspects of being a rock star. Once you’re famous, you can never be sure that a person loves you for you, and not for the girth of your…wallet.
Even the final shot of “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a wondrous and funny put-on. Trace and Gina, together in concert, are superimposed and immortalized over a panoply of night stars. Yes, they are as timeless as the constellations themselves. I love it. It’s a wonderful jab at music fans who consider their ephemeral favorites the greatest thing on Earth.
Taken in toto, “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a pretty great rock-and-roll fantasy, but what makes the episode so intriguing after all these decades is what it says about rock’s place in our culture. “There’s something about these lyrics that hate authority!” the Church Leader complains, and in real life, we’ve all heard the same (stupid) argument for decades. Why is it that every older generation must hate the younger generation’s music? And not only hate it, but try to actively destroy it? We’ve seen this bad impulse in every era for decades, and Otherworld reminds us that, as parents, we don’t always give the younger generation the same leeway we wish we had been given by our folks.
Lesson to be learned…in Otherworld.
Next Week: “Village of the Motorpigs.”